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What we expect to come from Valve to help Linux gaming in 2021

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By now you've probably heard either through us in our previous article or elsewhere that Valve are cooking something up to help Linux gaming even further. We have an idea on what one part of it is.

Valve already do quite a lot. There's the Steam Play Proton compatibility layer, the new container runtime feature to have Linux games both natively supported and Windows games in Proton run through a contained system to ensure compatibility, their work on Mesa drivers and much more.

In Valve's review of Steam in 2020 that we covered in the link above, one thing caught our eye and has been gaining attention. Valve mentioned for 2021 they will be "putting together new ways for prospective users to get into Linux gaming and experience these improvements" so what exactly does that mean? Well, a part of that might have already been suggested directly.

Back in November 2019, the open source consulting firm Collabora presented an overview of the work they have been doing funded by Valve. Towards the end of the talk they mentioned ongoing work towards foolproof and fast instant upgrades of Linux systems. Collabora mentioned it could work for specialised systems like consoles or other systems where you don't expect users to be highly technical. Leading into that, a Valve developer posted on Reddit to clarify more details around what Collabora were talking about:

The image-based updater work is part of a set of efforts to attempt to improve the experience of trying out Linux on a normal PC with live USB media, and instantly updating said media from the other OS without losing user data. There's no "locking down" involved, as it can easily be disabled by the user to fall back to the normal package manager.

Pierre-Loup Griffais, Valve

Linux has long been able to run directly from USB drives but what about the next stage of this evolution? That appears to be what Valve are hinting at in their 2020 review blog post.

Imagine if you will for a moment: a SteamOS-style USB stick, that's highly optimized for Linux gaming, with drivers ready to go and Steam pre-configured with everything it needs all direct from Valve and also this special update system to ensure it keeps on working. Now add in some pre-configured persistence so your games, files and so on stay on it and that sure sounds like a new way for users to get into and experience Linux gaming doesn't it? Steam Machines didn't work, so a way to properly experience Linux gaming in full on hardware people already own? That could certainly work.

That could be a much more interesting way to actually market and advertise Linux gaming too. It's not enough to have Linux distributions be fast and stable, and to have plenty of games available to play otherwise we would already be in a better position as a platform. An absolute game changer? No, but another very useful tool in the shed. The conversation changes with such an easy to use way to get involved. Burn it to a USB stick, load it on your PC and login to Steam, download a game and away you go — you're now gaming on Linux.

Not just for gamers though, this could be a pretty valuable tool for developers to test their games on Linux too. If it enables developers to quickly boot up a drive with Linux on, that's up to date and works with games, that's going to make things a lot easier in the long run from all sides.

USB drives have been ridiculously cost effective in the last few years too, along with plenty of USB3 options now existing for the speed and you can get quite a lot of storage on them so it would be a pretty fascinating move.

Over to you in the comments, what are your thoughts?

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Shmerl 17 Jan
It can be useful, but it's not really a major game changer as you point out. What Valve could do, is to partner let's say with AMD and push for Linux to become a well supported and ubiquitous target in sold laptops / desktops by all major venodrs. Let's see Linux everywhere starting to displace Windows. That would be a major step forward.
CatKiller 17 Jan
Quoting: Purple Library GuyOf course! I'd never thought about the ramifications of those PC Bangs . . . that's probably one reason why China always seems to stampede towards a couple of really popular games: The cybercafes install the most popular games on all their computers, so when you go there that's all you're gonna play.
I suppose this could have some impact on that . . . if the owners are willing to sit still for people using the things.

The machines are going to be re-imaged regularly anyway, so that there aren't bitcoin miners and cheats and things left on their machines, so it's OK from a computer hygiene perspective, and a standard legit thing that lots of their customers might want to use is a more realistic prospect than the one Linux user in China coming in wanting to boot their own distro.

Unfortunately, as we see starkly when they double-count China in the hardware survey, most of those machines are running Intel/Nvidia. Pop gets round the issue by having an Nvidia image (that boots using the proprietary driver) and a non-Nvidia image (that doesn't). So, optimally for this use case, Valve would want to include both images and pick the one to use at boot time, with access to the library configured for both. Which is a pain, but doable.
ageres 17 Jan
In order to understand what Valve could intend, people should realize it's a commercial company that exists to make money, not to drive people to go FOSS. I don't believe that Valve advances Linux gaming just because good Gaben loves Linux and us, Linux users. Before suggesting an idea, try to think what benefit can Valve get and how. It should lead to a situation where more people spend more money on Steam. I see several ways:

1. Promoting Linux among Windows users to lure people away from Xbox Game Pass for PC, the biggest competitor for Steam. No Windows 10, no Game Pass.
2. Making Linux gaming a better experience for existing Steam for Linux users. That's obvious, just keep working on Proton, contributing to relevant software, making contact with AAA-developers so they make their games Proton compatible if not Linux native. Maybe they will finally make a 64-bit client. Maybe an ARM version.
3. Engaging in using Steam Linux users who don't use Steam. I don't think that anything could be done to "FOSS/DRM-free or bust" kind of people, but at least Steam could be pre-installed on all popular Linux distributions, like it already is on Manjaro. I heard China is about to switch to Linux (for real this time), and I'm pretty sure Valve will try to take an advantage of that.

What ideas I consider as bad:

1. Linux-exclusive games. Exclusivity is never good and, in this case, will result in material losses for Valve and just won't work.
2. Lesser percentage share that Valve would take for games with Linux versions. It contradicts the purpose of Proton and Steam. Also it could lead to shitty ports just to get quick money and then to disappointment in Linux for developers. Remember The Witcher 2?
3. Any hardware. It may sound promising in theory, but we all have already seen that in practise it never succeeds. Maybe years later, when ARM CPUs will replace current ones, and there will be powerful and cheap enough Nintendo Switch-like devices, then it's time to do something one more time. Have you seen GPD Win 3? It look awesome IMO, but with an Intel CPU it's too expensive and consumes too much power. There are similar projects, like AYA Neo, but all of them have these handicaps. Image a cheap handheld gaming device that is actually a PC with Linux and Steam.
4. That USB stick thing. Sorry, but it is just silly.

Well, only Gaben knows what the future holds.
aokami 17 Jan
Quoting: Liam DaweThis has been talked about across other articles, and noted in the first link in this article where Valve clarified what the work was for - to help DRM work in Proton.

Sorry I missed the link and articles, I wasn't paying much attention back in November.
Quoting: ageres1. Promoting Linux among Windows users to lure people away from Xbox Game Pass for PC, the biggest competitor for Steam. No Windows 10, no Game Pass.
That's an interesting point.
ageres 17 Jan
Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: ageres1. Promoting Linux among Windows users to lure people away from Xbox Game Pass for PC, the biggest competitor for Steam. No Windows 10, no Game Pass.
That's an interesting point.
I just don't see any other reason why would Valve prefer people to use Linux and not Windows 10 (if they even want that). Only to use their dominance on Linux. On Windows, there are Steam, Origin, EGS, etc. So many stores to choose where to spend money. On Linux, it's just Steam.
Solarwing 17 Jan
In my opinion this solution also would be nice: USB stick with steamOS preinstalled on it.Connect it with PC and then use Valve's possible game streaming service(which consist of your games in personal library) without needing to install the desired game on a USB stick. But on the other hand it would need a good internet connection. But this is only a suggestion. What Liam(master) wrote about USB stick is also a good solution.
mphuZ 17 Jan
Quoting: SolarwingIn my opinion this solution also would be nice: USB stick with steamOS preinstalled on it.Connect it with PC and then use Valve's possible game streaming service(which consist of your games in personal library) without needing to install the desired game on a USB stick. But on the other hand it would need a good internet connection. But this is only a suggestion. What Liam(master) wrote about USB stick is also a good solution.
To do this, they first need to run Steam Play 3.0 (Steam Cloud Play)
I don't know what Valve 'will do' but I can come up with some ideas for what they 'should consider doing'.

Automatic Proton Crash Reports
Simple concept, enhance Proton with the ability to automatically detect when it has crashed in a way that suggests a game attempted to do something which exceeds Proton's limitations in terms of what aspects of Windows it supports via compatibility layer, or detect crashes that are due to a bug in Proton itself, or due to crashes of the graphics driver, etc. Then report those to Valve's servers, along with useful contextual information, such as the user's distro, Linux kernel version, desktop environment, graphics card, CPU model, etc, to gather better information about crashes to identify bugs faster, to narrow down causes of bugs, and hence fix them more quickly.

Proton compatibility / debugging tools for Windows developers
Some developers may be keen to support Linux via Proton, for those developers, having some tools that let them run their Windows games on Linux and identify causes of Proton related bugs would be very helpful.

Incentivise Linux / Proton compatibility
Perhaps a lower store cut for games with Linux / Proton compatibility? This of course is dependent on just how badly Valve really wants Linux gaming to happen and how immediately. Perhaps they won't want it 'that much'.

Create a Proton-compatible EAC/BattlEye alternative
Why fix EAC/BattlEye, when they can just create something to replace it? Even better, make it open source too. And design it from the ground up to be compatible with Proton. Offer it for free to developers to use instead of EAC, and it would surely be popular if it offers comparable cheat protection.

Expand Proton Whitelist
Some games work very reliably via Proton on all hardware but aren't yet added to the Proton whitelist. It would be great to have the whitelist expanded to include them.

Automatic Per-Game Proton Tweaks
Some games are 'Platinum' with a single command line tweak. But to maximise the pleasantness of Proton's UX, ideally gamers should NEVER have to use a command line tweak, or consult a database to find tweaks to get games working. Everything should 'just work' as much as possible. It would be nice if Proton could automatically apply tweaks to certain games to get them working automatically, so they can be whitelisted.

Automated Proton Game-Like Test Suite on Test Machine Farm
Think of them as unit tests (if you're a developer you know what those are).

Basically a series of small applications developed on Windows, that test one specific thing. Such as:
- A feature of DirectX
- A specific method of a Windows API
- Functionality of a software library, like a physics engine, or audio library, etc
- Common method for achieving common gameplay functionality, such as common code patterns for switching between fullscreen/windowed/borderless

These tests would be all automated.
Even the ones that test user input APIs would do so in an automated way with the automation software faking user input to test it.

The testing system would test for accuracy, bugs, crashes, etc.

Ideally, these would be run on a dozen or so automated machines running varied configurations of Linux gaming setups, different hardware/distro/software setups.

The results of the testing would be a report of what tests failed and on which configurations. Identifying exactly what does or doesn't work in Proton and on what Linux gaming PC configurations.

This would make the task of identifying a problem and fixing it quick and easy. Rather than trying to manually test every game in existence and poke it's huge compiled binary source code to identify what exactly went wrong, these small tests could identify exactly what isn't working.

With enough tests for all the things found commonly in games, including regularly added new tests for new common libraries, APIs, etc, you could identify and fix problems well before they ever prevent games from running at release day.

Summary
More testing.

I think that's going to be the key to keeping progress on Proton moving forward at a rapid pace. Quickly narrowing down bugs and fixing them.

All problems become immediately harder to solve when finding the cause of the problem is like finding a needle in a haystack. Having better tools to discover causes of problems, will result in solutions arriving faster.
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Hmmm I find it a strange move to prioritize this in 2021. This seems to be aimed at Windows users willing to try out gaming on Linux. But no Windows user is going to give up his OS and setup that they have been using for years for a different platform just to realize they can't play many of their loved AAA multiplayer titles.

This is why I think the priority needs to be put on having ALL games at least playable on Linux first. This means working on the persisting Anti-Cheat issues as well as getting done further features that are currently not on-par with Windows performance like Raytracing.
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